Waiting for GODOT in Iraq
In Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot,
the two protagonists passively await Godot, a tramp who will give
direction to their lives. Godot, of course, never shows up. Similarly,
the leaders of the Army and Marine Corps cannot wait for policy
direction or a strategic clarity about Iraq that is not going to
Supposedly, the current mission is to establish
a stable and democratic Iraq. But Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno,
about to assume command of Multi-National Corps-Iraq, has said he
did not know whether insuring a Western-style democracy will remain
the mission, telling a New York Times reporter, "notice I left
out a few things, such as a democracy in the sense that we see a
democracy in the United States."1
The immense challenges facing our ground forces
demand leadership with clear focus. For the next several years,
our forces will remain engaged in combat in Iraq, with the ambiguous
mission not enjoying the support of the majority of the American
body politic. This tension between the military mission and political
goals will affect battlefield performance, strategic credibility,
the social contract between the people and our Army, and budgets.
Let us look at each of the four challenges.
Battlefield Performance and Risk
There is no historical precedent for the current
situation. President George W. Bush has said we will not leave until
victorious, but the Iraq Study Group-ten distinguished Americans-has
concluded that Iraq is "deteriorating," while General
peter pace, the chairman of the Joint chiefs of Staff, has said,
"We're not winning, but we're not losing."2
No one knows when this war is going to end-or how-whether satisfactorily
As we enter the fifth year of the war, a majority
in Congress and in the opinion polls want our forces substantially
withdrawn, while acknowledging that the mission-leaving a stable,
orderly, and democratic Iraq protected by its own forces-has not
been achieved. At the same time, the president, with two years remaining
as commander-in-chief, has not altered the mission, despite a widespread
belief that his own political party will successfully force a mission
change before the next presidential election.
This is quite different from the Vietnam case,
when president Richard M. Nixon took office in 1969 promising a
strategy of American withdrawal. He easily won reelection four years
later, in large part because American ground forces were no longer
fighting in Vietnam. In Iraq, the other shoe of American politics-the
public announcement of the withdrawal of most of our 140,000 American
troops-has not yet dropped.
General pace has also said the war cannot be
won militarily, let alone won by Americans. To judge by our military
performance, pace's words are accurate. "Clear, hold and build"
has given way to "control Baghdad, withdraw from the front
lines, increase the advisors, and turn operational control over
to the Iraqis." the plan seems to be for U.S. Forces to keep
a lid on the sectarian violence, especially in Baghdad; train Iraqi
security forces; and shift control of the Iraqi Army to prime minister
Nouri al-Maliki. Major General William Caldwell, the military spokesman
in Iraq, said, "We should see the complete transfer of command
and control of all Iraqi Army divisions by late spring, early summer."3
Mr. Maliki, however, has not behaved like a
strong leader. Giving him more control over the armed forces in
order to bolster his confidence runs the risk of putting all eggs
into a fragile basket. Because this has been front-page news for
months, including the deliberate leaks of explicit memos from the
White House, everyone understands that American units and advisors
are conducting a holding action. Winning is not an option, while
the risk of a tragic end to the American involvement in Iraq is
there for all to see.
Indeed, the level of pessimism among the American
policy-making elites, the congress, and the press is astonishing.
Having visited with 15 U.S. And Iraqi units in September and October,
I am a solid five on a scale of one (disaster) to ten (success).
In other words, the anecdotal evidence is confounding, and there
are no objective, countrywide measures for determining whether stability
or civil war is more probable.
The challenge is to inspire professional behavior
in the face of strategic uncertainty and public pessimism. In both
Korea and Vietnam, the expectancies about combat performance changed
as the wars drew to a close. In 1953 in Korea, patrols were carefully
plotted to minimize the chances of anyone being snatched, and in
1970 in Vietnam, aggressive patrolling was frowned upon as the units
pulled out. We have not yet reached that demarcation point in Iraq,
but it's coming fast. In this climate, are Soldiers expected to
behave with the same aggressiveness and risk-taking that they did
when attacking Baghdad in 2003?
In November, The New York Times ran a front
page Sunday story about a captain, frustrated by the feckless Iraqi
police, who said in essence that the job was to get the Soldiers
home without losing anyone else.4 that
created a stir across the military Internet, with one Marine general
famous for his combat ferocity and blunt words writing: "Suck
Determining the balance between tactical aggressiveness
and care for one's Soldiers is tough at any time. It becomes particularly
challenging when every Soldier understands that Iraqi political
leaders are irresolute in confronting the Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite
murderers, and that the American congressional election has produced
a landslide vote against the president's insistence on staying the
There have been quiet changes of command in
Iraq when patrolling has not been aggressive. Yet to avoid casualties
and kidnappings, our generals have issued blanket tactical restraints,
such as always wearing thirty pounds of armor and never leaving
the wire with fewer than eight Americans or four Humvees. In Iraq,
our counterinsurgency doctrine-an exhortative taxonomy-emphasizes
"non-kinetics," and our rules of engagement are as strict
as those governing the police in the States. In theory, higher commanders
communicate their intent, leaving initiative and details of execution
to their subordinates. In reality, the higher command dictates force
protection measures and investigates continuously. Decentralized
decision making is limited in order to reduce the chances of friendly
In 2007, we're about to bulk up our advisors
to provide more combat experience on the streets, at the point of
battle. In terms of the disparity in self protection equipment and
firepower, there is, and will remain, a huge difference between
the advisors and the Iraqi forces. This leads to a question about
the advisors' mission: are the Iraqis expected to do as the advisors
do, or as they say?
In December I received an e-mail from an advisor
in a remote outpost, sent shortly after a suicide bomber killed
one of his men. The advisor wrote, "We don't want to stay in
this town forever, but while we're here we sure as hell believe
we're going to fix the problem. There are too many irritants floating
around the terms 'winning or losing' and 'belief in the cause.'
the job is hard and serious enough that without total commitment
to your unit, a belief in something larger than yourself, it would
be easy to cut corners, to take an extra hour or two of sleep, to
slough the time inside the wire...and your peers would recognize
it immediately and cast you out. Keegan said that infantrymen work
for recognition only by their peers. I agree with that."
A few days after I received that e-mail, the
associated press ran a story about a unit that was 10 miles and
a thousand attitudes away: "We've been here for 12 months now
and there's been no progress," an American Soldier said. "It's
like holding a child's hand, how long can you hold onto his hand
before he does something on his own. How much longer do we have
to get shot at or blown up? I don't want to live my life like this."5
We shouldn't drift into divergent interpretations
of the mission and of aggressive versus force protection tactics,
as we did in Vietnam as the war ground down. How aggressive we expect
our battalions and advisory teams to be over the next two years
requires explicit address. General George W. Casey Jr., commander
of the multi-national Force-Iraq, meets with every American combat
battalion commander and staff. Undoubtedly lieutenant General Odierno
will do likewise. Across the board, there should be one set of standards
and expectations about aggressiveness for our battalions and advisory
teams. At camp Fallujah, a sign reads, "Welcome to the fight!"
Good on that command. That has to be the spirit. Aggressiveness
However the war in Iraq ends, the American
press, policymaking elite, and a majority of the public have already
concluded it was a failure. Facts don't change attitudes, and the
judgment against Iraq has been rendered. Whether U.S. generals acted
wisely in Iraq, or were as culpable as the civilian policymakers,
will be debated over the course of the next decade. Retired Army
General Jack Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the Army, told
The New York Times, "there's shared responsibility here. I
don't think you can blame the civilian leadership alone."6
The subject of who erred in Iraq will be more
divisive than Vietnam in one key respect: the military is divided
internally. After Vietnam, the military and those who served closed
ranks, with 95 percent proud of their service and an overwhelming
majority believing the cause was noble.
Unlike the South Vietnamese, the Iraqis have
not fought doughtily, and many have expressed bitterness against
the United States. In areas where there is scant violence-most of
the provinces-there is little willingness to sacrifice for the country
and no gratitude to America for bringing freedom. The religious
leader of the Shi'ites in Iraq, ayatollah Sistani, is hugely influential
in political matters and has met with un representatives, but he
refuses to meet with an American official.
In Iraq, the ministries do not provide for
their own troops. The feckless Iraqi politicians, divided by sectarian
loyalties and a society traumatized by decades of murderous tyranny,
have been unable to generate sustained competence and cadres of
leaders. The consequence is that too many Iraqis look first to taking
care of family, then tribe, and then religious sect, with national
loyalty a distant fourth in priorities.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq, however, is real, evil, implacable,
and dedicated to killing. A collapsed Iraq would result in a wider,
messier regional war. A defeat for the United States would be more
than a national humiliation; it would adversely affect trade, our
economy, our domestic comity, and the willingness of other nations
to ally with us. Losing is not an option.
So what is the mission today? To train Iraqi
security forces capable of restoring a modicum of enduring stability.
Whether this will be accompanied by a Western-style democracy or
by a military controlling things behind the scenes, as was the case
in turkey and South Korea a few decades ago, remains to be seen.
Highly respected generals like retired Marine
Tony Zinni have criticized the policy that led to the war, with
the press providing a multiplex megaphone, while remaining silent
about the military strategy for fighting the war. Unfortunately,
U.S. generals have not distinguished themselves in the four years
that have led to the current, minimalist mission of training indigenous
soldiers to take over a job we defined poorly and could not complete.
In Desert Storm in 1991, our generals basked in public adulation
and accepted it as their due. Modesty was not a trait to be found
in the books, reviews, and ticker-tape parades that followed the
swift eviction of Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
After 9/11, U.S. Central Command seemed set
on a second path of glory. Together with Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld, General Tommy Franks was lauded for routing the Taliban.
This was followed by the impressive march to Baghdad in April 2003.
Franks retired and, like his predecessors, Generals Norman Schwarzkopf
and Zinni, wrote a best-selling memoir that distilled his military
That was the high-water mark for public adulation
of generals. The iron rule of politics-and all generals, like all
senior executives, have polished political skills-is that courtiers
boost winners and eschew losers. As Iraq disintegrated in late 2003,
the press began to distance itself from the generals it had feted.
The press has begun to question the role of
the generals in key decisions. General Franks concurred in the White
House decision to violate the principle of unity of command, agreeing
it was proper to relieve his deputy, Army retired lieutenant General
Jay Garner, as the director of the Office of Reconstruction and
Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq, and install ambassador Paul Bremer.
This shift established a separate chain of command to the president,
and gave Bremer authority to determine the mission and budget of
both the new Iraqi Army and the police. That was a terrible decision.
Franks preached unity of command, and concurred in its abolition.
In July 2003, General John Abizaid, who followed
General Franks as the CENTCOM commander, declared an insurgency
had emerged in Iraq, yet permitted Combined Joint Task Force-7 (CJTF-7),
the coalition military command in Iraq at that time, to flail around
with unilateral offensive operations for another year and a half.
This ignored basic counterinsurgency doctrine. CJTF-7 and CENTCOM
ordered a Marine expeditionary force (MEF) to assault Fallujah in
April 2004, overruling the subordinate command's protests. Then
CENTCOM ordered the MEF to halt the attack when it was two days
from finishing the mission. The MEF then handed the city over to
former Iraqi generals, who lost control to Musab al-Zarqawi. In
deciding to hand over power to the Iraqi generals, the MEF consulted
with CENTCOM, but did not coordinate with ambassador Bremer and
the State Department, who vociferously objected when they belatedly
learned about the transfer of power inside Fallujah. There was no
glory in those military decisions.
The next year, 2005, saw repeated offensive
sweeps driving the insurgents from one city to another. In Anbar
province, there were never enough troops for the mission. Senator
Joe Biden (D-DE) announced on TV that a senior general in Anbar
told him he needed more U.S. Forces. Yet CENTCOM, the Joint Chiefs
of Staff, and the command in Iraq all claimed they needed no more
American troops. Hmm. This is not a reflection of character; everyone
makes mistakes. Senior officers adhere to a code of leadership and
honor that should be emulated by those senior corporate executives
who have made a virtue of greed.
But there has been a systemic flaw that persists
through today. In conventional war, the objective is to defeat the
enemy force. This lays the civilian population open to occupation,
as in World War II, or forces the enemy government to accept terms,
as in World War I. Progress can be measured by terrain taken or
armies shattered. In an insurgency, those measures are misleading,
and others must take their place.
In Iraq, our military offered no set of measures
to the public. So the press came up with its own: the degree of
daily violence, especially civilian deaths. In response, the military
pointed to an ever-increasing number of "trained" Iraqi
forces, as the violence escalated. The result was that a large portion
of the press, the congress, and the foreign policy community grew
to doubt the wisdom and the candor of the generals.
In 2003, maneuver warfare was brilliantly applied
in the swift march to Baghdad. When the war shifted to an insurgency,
though, we persisted for 18 months with inappropriate maneuver warfare
tactics. This was phase I: maneuver warfare inappropriately applied
Saddamists directed the Sunni insurgency in
late 2003 and 2004. Former Army officers had the skills and drew
on a legion of disaffected youths galvanized by the seditious preachments
of Sunni clerics who gained power in the absence of local government.
The American invaders were the target. Simultaneously, al-Qaeda
in Iraq (AQI) was targeting Shi'ite symbols and leadership.
By 2005, AQI was pushing aside the Saddamists
and emerging as the bellwether among the diverse insurgent cells.
Under General Casey, the American combat battalions shifted to counterinsurgency,
aiming to win over and protect the Sunni population. Practically,
this meant fewer heavy-handed searches and raids and more attention
to dialogue and civic works. The counterinsurgency Fm issued in
December of 2006 codified the changes that had evolved since early
2005. Every American battalion in Iraq was practicing counterinsurgency.
This was phase II: counterinsurgency versus insurgents.
Underlying contradictions, though, were never
resolved. A large majority of Sunnis wanted the Americans to leave.
They didn't want Aqi taking over and imposing Taliban rule, yet
they considered it legitimate for the insurgents to kill Americans.
The Americans were infidel invaders that had stripped the Sunnis
of power and handed it to the Shi'ites who had been oppressed for
centuries. Aqi and the "moderate" cells that called themselves
"the honorable resistance" agreed that the Americans had
to be thrown out. The Sunnis had not accepted that they deserved
to lose their power dominance, or that the loss was permanent. For
over 18 months, American officials have been meeting in Jordan with
at least seven insurgent groups that claimed to want reasonable
terms, but rejected every offer. Obdurate irrationality prolonged
The U.S. Did not succeed in phase II. As of
November 2006, General Abizaid said that Anbar province, the stronghold
of the insurgency, was "not under control."7
By then, the American counterinsurgency dictum of "clear, hold
and build" had been overtaken by events. Beginning with the
destruction of the Samarra mosque in February 2006, the war had
shifted into phase III-sectarian violence that demands the police
techniques of identify, arrest, and imprison.
The Shi'ite death squads were retaliating with
increasing ferocity in response to the merciless Sunni suicide bombings.
Faced with ethnic cleansing, mass murder, and chaos in Baghdad,
U.S. Troops were rushed into the capital. But prime minister Maliki
responded by declaring that Sadr city, the lair of the death squads,
was off-limits to U.S. Units. This placed the American forces on
the tactical defensive, limited to patrolling and pinprick raids
insufficient to quell the violence. Every day, the American press
corps in Baghdad reported scores of bodies found bound, tortured,
and executed. The frustration of the American public resulted in
severe Republican losses in the midterm elections, followed by the
dismissal of the Secretary of Defense and publication of the Iraq
Study Group report. The Group recommended a huge increase in advisors,
withdrawal in 2007 of U.S. combat units as conditions permitted,
and aid to the Iraqi Government dependent upon its meeting benchmarks
of performance. President Bush then declared he would adopt a new
strategy. "The American people expect us to come up with a
new strategy to achieve the objective which I've been talking about,"
Bush said.8 any comprehensive strategy
has political as well as military components. But the press and
the White House-strange bedfellows-have given the rest of the U.S.
Government a free pass in the war. Iraq's judicial system is broken,
unemployment is enormous, and Maliki and the Shi'ites have to reconcile
with the Sunnis to substantially decrease the violence. These are
political and economic missions. Yet the State Department, aid,
Department of Justice, and the rest of the U.S. Government never
showed up with an adequate, professional work force. In 2007, it
is incumbent on the White House to change that.
The U.S. Military strategy must also change.
Over the next year, most of the battle space will be handed over
to the Iraqi Army, with U.S. Combat units pulling back to be used
more as quick reaction and raiding forces against al-Qaeda in Iraq
and death squads. American units are not going to continue to occupy
Sunni cities and try to win the support of the Sunni population
or protect them from the insurgents that were hiding in plain sight
among them. Counterinsurgency is no longer central. The primary
task has shifted to training Iraqi security forces.
American forces face three tasks: 1) reduce
the violence in Baghdad while getting control over the police; 2)
partner with the Iraqi Army in the Sunni triangle, cut local deals
with the tribes and stand up the police; and 3) bring the advisory
effort to the fore, increasing the numbers from 3,500 to 15,000.
The advisors must have a joint U.S.-Iraqi board to appoint the key
Iraqi commanders and to relieve for malfeasance. Lacking this leverage,
our advisors risk their lives, but cannot affect the critical input:
Iraqi leadership. We must adapt our tactics to the new tasks. Our
forces are not attriting the enemy in firefights. The enemy has
learned not to engage Americans. I recently met with several squads
of grunts who were completing their second tours. Of 40 riflemen,
about six or seven were fairly positive they had shot an insurgent.
The common reference for battling insurgents was "it's like
fighting ghosts." Firepower isn't the answer because it cannot
About 20 percent of the effort of a combat
brigade goes into raids, mostly at night. These yield most of the
results in terms of detainees. Eighty percent of the effort is devoted
to self-protection and patrols, patrols, patrols-most in partnership
with Iraqi units. The initiative to engage, though, lies with the
enemy. We drive or walk by, and he chooses when and how to attack.
Patrols keep a lid on the violence, but do not change attitudes
or the balance of the war. Patrols buy time. This is not a strategy;
it is a holding action.
Holding for what action, and by whom? The enemy
has used the same tactics of mass sectarian murder-by-suicide and
intimidation-by-assassination for four years. The hard-core killers
must be identified, arrested, and put away for life. The war has
passed through the counterinsurgent phase and into the police phase.
The first tactical imperative is to identify
the insurgent who hides in plain sight among the civilians. Four
years after the war began, we have no reliable means to identify
insurgents in Baghdad or the Sunni triangle. Our U.S. Border patrol
carries handheld PDAs that take a thumbprint of a pedestrian or
driver, send it over the radio, and inside two minutes have the
individual's history on the screen. If there is no prior data, the
print is entered into the database. The procedure is simple, fast,
and has an acceptable success rate. We and the Iraqis conduct thousands
of patrols and stop tens of thousands of cars each day. If our forces
were equipped with these PDA devices, all military-aged males in
Baghdad and the Sunni triangle would be registered inside six months.
But in Iraq, our military-industrial complex
has successfully fought every effort to introduce any such simple
fingerprinting system. The intelligence community, not known for
conducting patrols, insists on an elaborate, convoluted system called
bats-the Biometric automated toolset System. Every time bats falters,
more money is heaved at it. Improvements have been slowly made,
but the system is reserved for Americans only, and run on computers
cleared for sensitive data. So at the battalion level, to include
all Iraqi battalions and police stations, we go without the most
basic tool of population control: identification.
The Iraqi police arrest practically no one.
One in every 318 Americans is in jail for violent crimes; one in
869 Iraqis is in an Iraqi jail for committing a crime or for insurgency.
The United States holds another 14,000 in Iraq. Added together,
one in 719 Iraqis is in jail-two to three times less than in the
United States. Yet the chances of a civilian being killed in Iraq
are 21 times greater than in the United States, and 43 times greater
if you are in the security forces in Iraq.
Iraq is holding fewer prisoners than Saddam
released in late 2002, when he opened the jail gates and let loose
tens of thousands of criminals that society had incarcerated over
the decades. Today, eight out of ten detainees walk free-and they
are paid $6 a day for their inconvenience.
By 1969, South Vietnam had 40,000 guerrillas
in Kho Tang Island and other prisons. Adjusting for differences
in population, to match that Iraq should have in prison at least
60,000, rather than the 14,000 it does have. The reason we are not
affecting the enemy is because we let him go. The "catch and
release program" is frustrating to American and Iraqi Soldiers
in Iraq; the farcical "rule of law" aids and abets the
insurgents and death squads. This war is going to drag on unnecessarily
because our senior commanders, military and civilian, do not understand
that the war effort is being systematically undercut by not arresting
and imprisoning insurgents and death squad members for the duration
of the conflict. The greatest single defect-and it may be mortal-in
the effort to restore stability is the refusal of the Iraqi and
American systems to imprison the criminals, insurgents, and death
squad members. Sending more U.S. Troops into Baghdad and letting
the death squads walk free makes no sense. If you cannot identify
the insurgent, and you are on the tactical defensive waiting for
him to shoot, and you cannot imprison him when you do arrest him,
you are not going to prevail. And that's a military reality, not
an economic or political one.
So how do we prevail? We don't. Our troops
keep a lid on the violence until the Iraqi Shi'ite leadership reaches
a political agreement with the Sunnis, who in turn essentially cease
to support the insurgents or kill al-Qaeda in Iraq. In other words,
our strategy is for someone else to implement a strategy.
The United States does not control the central
actors in Iraq. We are like a powerful trader in a volatile market
faced with alternative trading models. General Abizaid and president
Bush are doubling-down their bet on Maliki. He has been weak so
far, and by putting in more U.S. Troops and ceding him more control
over Iraqi forces, they are betting he will improve.
The Iraq Study Group took the opposite tack.
They recommended tying U.S. Assets to the market performance. If
the market met expected benchmarks, add assets. If it underperformed,
reduce the assets.
So where are we headed? Down two tracks: the
one is the development, under American advisors, of the Iraqi security
forces; the other is the emergence of a responsible Iraqi Government.
General Abizaid has assured the congress that Maliki will move against
the Shi'ite militias and emerge as a true leader by February, March,
or April 2007. It may be that Maliki is on the verge of a character-altering
epiphany. But if Maliki is incapable of moving against the militias
or effecting reconciliation, Bush will face the choice of sticking
with a failed democracy the United States created, or tolerating
a behind-the-scenes power play by a fed-up Iraqi military.
Four years ago, al-Qaeda in Iraq did not exist.
But it does now, and it's damn dangerous. Due to our own fecklessness,
Zarqawi took over Fallujah in the summer of 2004, and it took a
bloody battle to expel him. His successor cannot be allowed to set
up a sanctuary in another city and impose Taliban-like rule. We
must be prepared to let Maliki fail, and we must not fail with him.
We are training Iraqi troops to be the cement holding Iraq together
in place of Americans. We should hedge our bet and leave open a
government model like South Korea or Turkey in the '60s and '70s-both
emerging democracies with weak national assemblies and strong armies
that insured order prevailed.
Beyond Iraq, one long-term result from this
confusing war is clear: the combatant commanders have lost power.
For over a decade after the Goldwater-Nichols act, the theater commanders
were called commanders in chief, or CINCs, and they had authority
independent of the Joint chiefs and Washington. General Franks,
for instance, delighted in the story of calling the Joint chiefs
"title X mf's" and recounting how they responded after
his seemingly victorious march to Baghdad in April 2003 by taking
off their blouses to reveal purple t-shirts with the same words
This act of self-deprecation and homage marked
the apex of the bureaucratic power of the theater commanders. In
the next conflict, the Joint Chiefs will yield no such deference
to the strategic decisions of any one commander. Neither will the
press, the congress, or the public.
The Social Contract
All is not healthy within the body politic.
Given the Desert Storm victory in 1991 and the march to Baghdad
in 2003, the press expected swift victory and were not cautioned
otherwise. Since 2003, the mainstream press has relentlessly featured
front-page stories of gore and chaos in Iraq. It is not the scale
of the violence that is affecting public attitudes: 58,000 American
Soldiers died in Vietnam, compared to about 3,000 deaths to date
in Iraq. Rather, the polls suggest that public morale is sapped
by years of effort without demonstrable progress.
How Iraq will turn out is problematic: no Iraqi
soldier or cop dares go home in uniform. A government is not in
charge when its security forces must hide their identity.
If history is a guide, even dramatic improvement
in Iraq will not turn around the negative impression now held by
a majority of Americans. As I said earlier, facts don't change attitudes,
and that's especially true when egos and reputations are attached.
We've seen it before. In the early years (1965-1967) of the Vietnam
War, the U.S. high command in Saigon was so unremittingly optimistic
in shaping every report that the press referred to the daily press
briefing as "The Five O' Clock Follies." the military
had lost credibility.
Nevertheless, the press did credit General
Creighton Abrams with the success his counterinsurgency campaign
achieved. In 1969, I took a public bus to visit a district 15 miles
south of Da Nang in Quang Nam province; today, there is no way an
American will take a bus in Iraq. But the popular histories of the
Vietnam War stopped with the dreadful strategy of General William
Westmoreland. Abrams's dogged, successful pacification campaign
from '68 to '70 became a codicil to a foregone conclusion foretold
by journalists who became part of the story. David Halberstam's
The Best and the Brightest, Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie,
Robert N. Mcnamara's self-justifying memoirs, and other fabled accounts
essentially ended at Tet '68. The rest of the war became a journalistic
The same will be true of Iraq. To read the
mainstream press, Iraq had shattered irreparably by the end of 2006.
Tomorrow can bring only further descent into bloody civil war and
chaos. That's the storyline upon which editors have staked their
reputations, and if Iraq calmed down and achieved the violence level
of California, there would still remain enough mayhem to continue
calling the country a mess. There will be no Iraq ending that causes
Democrats and Republicans, journalists and politicians alike to
acknowledge that the war enhanced long-term national security.
Because America has tuned out the war, it has
left dangling what it expects of its Soldiers. Unlike Vietnam, the
vast majority of citizens respect the individual Soldiers and the
military as an institution. Lurking behind that respect, though,
there is more pity for the Soldiers serving in Iraq than pride or
a sense of shared commitment and sacrifice. Iraq is not accepted
as the nation's burden to resolve. The White House and the military
high command bungled that by assuming a quick victory that did not
require demanding a commitment by the public at large.
By the fifth year of fighting, the prevailing
popular attitude seems to be, "Oh you poor Soldiers, you're
away from home too long, and you risk being killed or wounded."
many, including retired generals, are opposed to the mission in
Iraq, but support the Soldier, who does believe in his mission.
This creates a contradiction that is alleviated by saying, in essence,
"Well, do your duty, but don't take undue risks."
The unspoken social contract between the people
and the Soldier has changed, at least temporarily. Duty, obedience,
and separation from family are expected of the Soldier, but valor-risking
one's life-is not publicly esteemed. The press attaches valor to
names from past wars-Murtha, Kerry, Webb-when there is a political
agenda. Acts of astonishing bravery in Iraq pass with scant notice.
War means taking the risk of dying in order
to kill the enemy. The price of courage, in turn, is casualties.
Both the public and our armed forces have become accustomed to comparatively
low risk and few casualties, while inflicting comparatively little
damage. To carry over such public expectations against a future
enemy would be disastrous.
Holding forth uncommon courage as the common
virtue must remain the watchword of those who choose to serve. But
in America, bile about Iraqi policy has lessened praise for valor,
lest it be taken as endorsement of the policy. We must publicly
salute courage if we expect it to remain a core American value.
As the poet W.H. Auden once wrote, "teach the free man to praise."
the new secretary of defense has a chance to turn the public climate
around by routinely singling out the valorous. The press will pick
up the signal.
Strategy and Budgets
Supporting the annual operations in Iraq and
Afghanistan consumes $90 billion while the escalating costs of education
and health care, combined with infrastructure repairs too long deferred,
demand the attention of legislators. The Defense budget is a competition
among the services under a fixed ceiling that is too low and unlikely
How the military and the Office of the Secretary
of Defense reach budgetary agreement is an arcane art, but it is
related to strategy. Three strategies are competing for funds. The
first is the high-tech, standoff-strike model, an example of which
is the 80-days 1999 bombing campaign to inflict economic pain and
force Serbia to withdraw from kosovo. This strategy has the decided
advantages of zero casualties and few boots on the ground. It focuses
upon "near peer competitors" (read China) and by itself
can devour the entire defense budget.
Second, the navy, underfunded in shipbuilding,
has initiated a well-publicized national campaign (funded by wealthy
donors to the Naval War College Foundation) to construct a new maritime
strategy. In the '80s, navy Secretary John Lehman unveiled an anti-Soviet
maritime strategy that the Reagan administration embraced, leading
to a sharp increase in the navy budget. The current effort will
result in a thoughtful document with influential support.
The third strategy entails fighting the long
war against Islamic extremists plus having sufficient forces and
equipment to hedge against land wars requiring hundreds of thousands
of American Soldiers (e.g., another war in Korea).
All three strategies have putative validity,
and so funding will be spread among them. Ground forces for the
long war are in trouble, though, because emotional reaction to the
Iraq imbroglio will cloud judgments about funding. After Saigon
fell, the congress cut Army and Marine funding, prompting then-Secretary
of Defense James R. Schlesinger to claim that the cuts "were
deep, savage and arbitrary." President Ford then fired Schlesinger,
and the cuts held amidst an atmosphere of ennui that persisted for
Given a defense budget hurtling toward a train
wreck, strategic choices have to be made. Political distaste for
Iraq will severely affect the long-term funding of the Army and
Marine ground forces unless there is forceful, respected military
leadership that articulates a coherent strategy. The Army and Marines
should replicate the navy model and not make separate pitches based
on weapons systems. Land forces need a general-General Casey or
Petraeus leap to mind, but there may be others-who has a vision
that acknowledges mistakes, incorporates lessons from Iraq, and
moves beyond that belabored country.
Four lessons from Iraq are clear. First, senior
military leaders in Iraq should convey a common set of expectations
about aggressive mission behavior for the duration of this politically
divisive war. Second, we have to evaluate our military performance
with candor, and not copy the politicians who refuse to acknowledge
error-no one gets through life, war, or a football game without
a lot of mistakes. Iraq is a police war and the American and Iraqi
systems are not identifying, arresting, and imprisoning at rates
guaranteed to shorten and perhaps win the war. That these errors,
acknowledged throughout the ranks, go uncorrected year after year
tarnishes the reputations of our generals. Third, the social contract
between the Soldier and the American public needs to be restored.
The new secretary of defense should go out of his way to reaffirm
the virtue of valor and urge the press and congress to do the same.
Courage, Aristotle said, is the virtue that makes all other virtues
possible. As a nation, we have forgotten that. Fourth, the competition
for defense resources is going to be fierce. To lessen the budgetary
cuts that follow after an unpopular war, a credible general officer
must articulate a convincing strategy for land forces.
1. Thom Shanker, "U.S.
General Discusses Goals of His return to Iraq," New York Times,
20 November 2006.
2. "Armed Services
Committee Confirmation Hearing for Defense-Secretary Nominee Robert
Gates," 5 December 2006. In the hearing, Armed Services Committee
Chairman John Warner, R-va, remarked that General Peter Pace had
told members at a private luncheon that "we're not winning,
but we're not losing [in Iraq]."
3. Major General William
Caldwell, "Iraq Operational UPDATE Briefing," Multinational
Force-Iraq, Baghdad, Iraq, 5 December 2006.
4 Kirk Semple, "Captain's
Goal: Bring Her Soldiers Home," New York Times, 19 November
5. Will Weissert, "U.S.
Troops in Insurgent Stronghold Welcome Plans for Change," New
York Times, 6 December 2006, online at <http://www.boston.com/
6. David S. Cloud and
eric Schmitt, "More retired Generals Call for Rumsfeld's Resignation,"
New York Times, 14 April 2006.
7. General John Abizaid
testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 15 November
8. White House News
Conference with President George Bush and British Prime Minister
Tony Blair, 7 December 2006.
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